Monday, October 29, 2007

Raw, adjective: 9. disagreeably damp and chilly, as the weather or air

Feels like winter here today. Usually the fog burns off by noon or so, but not today; today was all mist and wind and chill. Kind of fine with me.

Wandered into one of my favorite independent bookstores over on Fillmore on my way to do some writing, and found, somewhat serendipitously, a copy of Simone de Beauvoir's letters to Sartre plopped haphazardly on a shelf. Dishy stuff, I tell ya. If you don't know philosophy, well, these two were like the Bill and Hillary of mid-century existentialism. Brilliant, charismatic, driven, inspired, sexually deviant, although much more anti-bourgeois than the politically savvy Clintons. Pretty much the poster couple for models of alternative love that subvert the traditional bourgeois nuclear family set-up. Granted, they had their drama, but their famous "open marriage" agreement left mad room for intellectual vibrance and subversive sexuality and all kinds of badass deviant shit, usually featuring triads and youth and all kinds of illicit mystery.

The New Yorker had an interesting treatment of the whole Sartre-Beauvoir love triangle a few years back. Once you get past what is essentially a list of lovers, it does offer some thought-provoking ideas on what the years have come to reveal about their relationship. You can find it in their archives here: "Stand By Your Man: The Strange Liaison of Sartre and Beauvoir"

So after picking up a few new reads, I popped into Shabby Chic next door to check out some pillows I've been dreaming of [speaking of annoying bourgeois domesticity...guilty as charged]. On wandering in, I heard a strangely familiar voice, and looked up to the balcony upstairs to see a pretty dark-haired woman carrying a bright-eyed infant in a blue sling across her chest. A double-take later, I realized it was Keri Russell, of recent "Felicity" and "Waitress" fame (and, more importantly to those of us who had a daily after-school date with the Disney Channel circa 1990, a former MOUSEKETEER!!!). Anyway, Felicity was hanging with her seriously hippie-sexy baby-daddy and spawn, picking out something or other and chatting about sending it back to New York. She's tiny and beautiful, he's a granola dreamboat, and the kid is destined to be gorgeous. Plus, he's named River. Geez.

Funny reminder that, oh yeah, I live in a sweet city where random celebs can blend in and people do actually leave them the hell alone. That said, if they'd asked me to babysit, I definitely wouldn't have thought twice before saying yes.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Raw, adjective: 7. brutally or grossly frank: a raw portrayal of human passions

I've lost the last several days to Susan Minot. 
 Can you see why?

* * *

"Later her life would be full of things, full of houses and children and trips to the sea and husbands and hats with brims and dogs catching sticks and tables to set and lists to cross off and she would have left singing behind and the stars would never look this way again, they would be further away but at odd unexpected moments something of the stars might strike her and it would be as if someone had branded her forehead with a hot iron. She could not name it, the thing hitting her for an instant, and would not recall what had once been in her head at another time with other stars, but she would have the sense that she'd lost something and not know what it was and not want to find out. She sensed it might be too great to bear."
— Minot, "Evening"

(And that's Klimt, "La Musique," 1895.)

Raw, idiom: 14 a. in the natural, uncultivated, or unrefined state: nature in the raw.

Listen to what 15 year old Tommy Nguyen has to say about Yosemite:

"I'd rather be at the mall because you can enjoy yourself walking around looking at stuff as opposed to the woods," Nguyen said from the comfort of the Westfield San Francisco Centre mall. In Yosemite and other parks, he said, furrowing his brow to emphasize the absurdly lopsided comparison, "the only thing you look at is the trees, grass and sky."

Oh god. Read it and weep:

"Children Detach From Natural World As They Explore the Virtual One" (SF Chron)

So this is a pretty anecdotal little piece, but one that hits on this whole idea of "Nature Deficit Disorder" which increasingly affects children, who are spending upwards of 6 1/2 hours (HOURS!) a day with electronic media. It also hits on the socio-economic and urban/rural aspects of this deficit. Coming on the heels of seeing Into The Wild, it resonates with me more than ever.

I like what the dude at the end has to say about nature being where we discover a sense of wonder, which is "essential to our humanity." True fucking true. And this is what scares me the most about kids who don't get to grow up in the midst of it; they never develop that sense of breathless transcendent wildness that comes from witnessing nature, and, I tell ya, it's not something you can teach very easily down the road...

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Raw, adjective: 7. brutally or grossly frank: a raw portrayal of human passions

So the end of October's looming (WTF?), which means that the local playhouses have smartly flavored their seasons with a strong dose of the macabre. Last week I finally got to catch the end of ACT's "Sweeney Todd" run (before it heads out on its national tour), and Thursday night caught a last-minute seat at the opera for the Philip Glass world premiere new work set at the end of the Civil War, "Appomattox." The combined blood-and-guts quotient was plenty to satisfy any Halloweenie tendencies I'm feeling right now.

"Sweeney Todd" is, of course, one of Stevie Sondheim's greatest, his first big smash (1973, I think?) that really solidified his status as top dog of dark-and-mindful Broadway content. I hadn't been particularly familiar with this one, other than the breathtaking and heartbreaking ballad "Joanna," which generally gets some regular play in collections of his best songs. This production is famously stripped down, bare, stark, having transferred from first the West End and then B'way after winning mega Tonys and garnering acclaim for the way director John Doyle (a Brit) retooled the score and the staging to allow the principals to sing, act, AND play all of the orchestration. So you have Joanna on cello, and Anthony on the piano, and the Beggar Woman rocking out on clarinet, when not singing. The result is a fluid, dynamic, vaguely post-modern disjunction of a set, not really something you can place in a time or setting, but which flows so consistently that you are always watching the songs and the action twisting and turning and perpetually spinning along. Which feels fundamentally Sondheimian.

So as a production, most everything was excellent; but I have to say, it's such a bizarro grotesque niche little subject matter, this barber who slits his customers' throats and bakes them in pies to sell for profit - that I found myself searching for some greater wisdom, some looming existential meaning, some life truth to take away from it, as most pieces of art tend to offer, and in that regard, it left me hanging a bit, a little hungry, not quite satiated (though the twist at the end does give a touch of that, in terms of regret and choice and hurling ourselves into not-quite-well-considered actions before we know whether those are the best decisions). But I would definitely recommend seeing it if this particular company heads your way on tour, if only to marvel at the diverse skills of the singers/actors/orchestra members rockin' it onstage. Talk about triple threats.

On the equally macabre end, Glass's "Appomattox" dives right into that moment when Grant and Lee met in a small house at Appomattox and signed the surrender papers that ended the Civil War. Another moment in time, another niche topic, although the writers make more of an effort to expand the ruminations on war and race and struggle and oppression into modernity in the course of the second act, sometimes to great success and at other points, a little sophomorically. The music is classic Glass, tumbling and turning and rushing and flowing in constant crescendo and descrescendo, and there were moments when I wondered if I wasn't listening to the soundtrack from "The Hours" instead. But the orchestration is poignant (if at moments overbearing the voices), and the baritone work from Grant and Lee in particular heart-stopping. The wives of the politicians of the era - Mary Todd Lincoln, Julia Grant, etc. - provide sorrowful counterpoint to the business at hand, which bookends the production in a mindful reflection on war and grief and the endless perpetuation of death and destruction and really, what for?

Aesthetically the production is at once eerily, hollowly post-modern and strikingly bloody. Four life-size horse carcasses, dripping blood and hanging from ropes from the ceiling, set the tone for the set, filling the gilt opera house with the stench of death and rotting flesh. The colors of the production, all greys and oranges and reds, suit the anger and the passion of the war theme, while being at once too bright and too deathly to ever match the pulsing melancholy of the music.

It's certainly not an unadulterated success; the libretto is clunky at times, the transitions awkward, and some of the staging obvious and uninspired. But as a piece of work that seeks to ruminate on the sorrows and pointlessness of war, it succeeds. And Glass's pensive style seems particularly suited to that project.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Raw, idiom: 14 a. in the natural, uncultivated, or unrefined state: nature in the raw.

Saw Sean Penn's latest labor of love, "Into The Wild" tonight, and well, let's just say I'm pretty fucking shattered. Wrecked. Toast.

The film is an adaptation of Jon Krakauer's 1996 best-seller, a non-fiction journalistic version of Christopher McCandless's life and death on a romantic adventure in the Alaskan wilderness. I first read the book as an undergrad in a killer seminar on Religion & the American Wilderness, and loved it, of course, for a thousand reasons, but honestly struggled to imagine how a film adaptation could be even close to as successful or compelling. Somehow, Penn's done the job.

First of all, Emile Hirsch as McCandless rocks the whole scruffy-big-haired-wanderlust-filled-ideologue role. The kid is too fuckin dreamy for words. Between the wild curls and the kayaking athleticism and the anti-consumerism shit and the Tolstoy-toting nature boy loner thing, I nearly had to leave the theater. Hirsch is charismatic and pensive and somehow perfectly encapsulates the naivete and cynicism of the young McCandless.

The vistas are breathtaking, as well; Penn shot everything on location, so you've got hours of South Dakotan and Californian and Arizonan (Arizonian?) and Alaskan natural beauty to swim around in. The film's playing in IMAX format downtown and given all the sweeping views and stunning sunsets, I might just have to catch it again in widescreen format. As a piece of nature appreciation it's a pleasure in and of itself, let alone the additional crinkly-eyed, wide-smiling looseness that is Hirsch in action.

Something of the romance and anti-establishment wanderlust of writers like Thoreau and Emerson seeps into all of what you see here, and it would be easy to romanticize the (well, yes) stupidity of McCandless's cross-country trek into poetry soundbites and wilderness songs. But Penn does succeed in showing some of the folly and naivete of McCandless's journey, as well. The familiar temptation (well, to me, at least) of being that guy alone in the forest with just books and sky and birdsong for company is tempered by the human connections the film highlights as unintended but gracious and life-giving benefits of the journey. And the existentialist questions raised - about the inanity of false suburban complacency, the emptiness of urban American consumeristic lives, and the destruction that results from the kinds of technology that push us further and further from real experiences in nature - will resonate with you long after the closing credits roll.

Eddie Vedder's tumbling soundtrack warrants a mention, too, as do the performances of Catherine Keener and Vince Vaughn in supporting roles. A part of me will doubtless always harbor a bit of the fantasy of a Walden-esque life of my own, but "Into The Wild" at least reminds me that if I ever do decide to throw down and head for the hills, a) take a class in edible plants first, and b) prepare to ditch the vegetarian thing and eat some moose.

As long as Hirsch is there to share a drumstick, I'm game.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Raw, adjective: 11. unprocessed or unevaluated: raw data.

Just stumbled across a little jewel of an article in today's Times.

Somehow it manages to link together, most adeptly: small Lutheran colleges in Minnesota; the kind of Midwestern politeness that lends itself to silence; gender, writing, and voice. The politics of voice. The influence of region on voice. And the nuances of self-possession in young writers. I found myself nodding along. I have known these young people, without a doubt.

"Politeness and Authority at a Hilltop College in Minnesota"

Monday, October 8, 2007

Raw, idiom: 14 a. in the natural, uncultivated, or unrefined state: nature in the raw.

Good morning!

Been awhile. Crazy-ass week. Nebraska, back home to SF, and a second weekend of performances before finally closing the show last night and catching a friend's after that. I haven't written in weeks, book-wise. Ask me to sing a song, though, and I'll have something for ya.

So, yesterday's show was a matinee, which meant, of course, call at 1 o'clock, and singing in the middle of the day instead of in the evening. Much harder to warm up for, especially when you haven't been speaking all day. I woke up early and hit a yoga class, and then decided I'd head up the hill and pop in to Grace Cathedral for a quick service to squeeze in a little singing before heading to the show.

I huffed and puffed my way up Nob Hill and stepped, flushed, into the Cathedral a few minutes to 11. The first thing I saw on walking in was this mammoth dog smack in front of me. We're talking an elephantine golden retriever-type (I don't know dogs, sorry) that looked - seriously - like a blond bison. Huge. Figured it was a seeing eye dog, but was surprised by its size.

Suddenly I realize that the whole Cathedral is full of animals. There are dudes walking around with parakeets chirping on both shoulders, cats slinking around, and dogs everywhere you turn. The Cathedral, which is usually half-full at best on Sundays, is jam-packed like on Easter Sunday - I only manage to squeeze in a little edge of a pew behind a big cement pillar, thinking "What the hell is going on?!?" in the midst of the cheeps and the barks and the growls.

Turns out Oct. 7th is the Feast of St. Francis, a.k.a. the Blessing of the Beasts. So all the pet owners in the vicinity have brought their pets to be blessed by the Dean and his cronies in vestments. As they process in, I look to my right where a small birdlike woman with long grey hair and a vibrant orange pashmina wrapped around her shoulders stops the liturgical procession to lean down and pet said Bison Dog from earlier. I think to myself, "Come on, lady; you're holding up the procession. Let's go."

The service starts and I open my bulletin to check out the action. And, voila: the little birdlike woman? She's Dr. Jane Goodall, conservationist and primatologist extraordinaire, and she's giving the sermon. Now I understand why the Cathedral is so packed. This tiny British chimp lady is a veritable icon.

Her sermon itself was exactly what you'd expect: ecumenical, mindful, socially aware, politically progressive, and leavened with charm. She threatened to do chimp noises. (I wish she would've!) She drew on wisdom traditions from all over the world - Judaism, Native American spirituality, Hinduism, Buddhism - to shape a call for greater environmental and animal rights ethics, accompanied by the chorus of cheeps and barks from the little guys in the pews. It was a pretty sweet way to start the day. I left renewed, unexpectedly so.

This is why I live in San Francisco. Because I can stumble up the hill hoping to squeeze in a few hymns before a performance, and end up in a veritable Doctor Doolittle world of pets and blessings and an icon right there next to me leaning down to give a big ol' dog a belly rub. And then slip back out into the sunshine and the day and be on my way, as the rest of the City keeps whirling around me.

Now that's life.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Raw, adjective: 8. brutally harsh or unfair: a raw deal.

Ok. First of all, I'm in Nebraska. Whoa. Weird.

Settling in here after a fabuloso day of airline travel (tongue planted firmly in cheek). It's so weird to leave the Bay Area. Only once I've landed in Denver do I ever realize what an insanely delicious bubble I live in there. You touch down at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and suddenly it's all flannel and slooow drawls and no fresh carrot juice to be found. Within those first two minutes, I realize what a complete urban bitch I have become.

And I love it.

So I spent the two long flights to Omaha buried in my Sunday Chron, catching up on the world. Richard Rapaport had a stellar article in the Insight section yesterday, a rumination on the bizarro political-legal-social phenomenon that is "Zero Tolerance." It's a fascinating combination of criminal and cultural theories. Check out this blurb:

"Like water hyacinth, the pestiferous houseplant invading Southern lakes and streams, Zero Tolerance is taking over the national fishpond, choking out once-treasured values like compassion, discretion and inventiveness. Over the past four decades, Zero Tolerance has metastasized from drug enforcement, to policing, into the court system, the public schools and now, perhaps worst of all, into the American social mainstream.

The institutionalization of Zero Tolerance policies signals the triumph of a bureaucratic mind-set more obstinately retrograde than the once-derided French or German models. I mean, have you been at the counter inside a Barnes & Noble, in line at the Century 20 ticket kiosk, or checking into a doctor's office, and asked for a slight bending of the house rules? Not this time, chump."

Brilliant. It's essentially a call for subversion, a reclaiming of compassion and mindfulness, a revaluing of chaos and a certain trust in redemptive hope and the transformative power of, well, fucking up and learning from it. It's the same spirit that infects the Adbusters shit and the Buy Nothing Day stuff and all of that other culture jamming that makes people question the straight-laced bureaucratic boundaries that we adhere to so fearfully.

Whew, I'm ranting. Can you tell my lefty anger increases in proportion with my distance from Blue States? Point being, the article is worth a read, especially for the greater sense it triggers of a need for reintroducing subversion in a culture that is too tightly-rule-bound.

(Speaking of rules: Transportation Security Agency and 1 quart plastic bags and Terrorism Color Alerts and shit. Ugh. Just going through security is enough to make anyone a bleeding heart liberal.)

"Zero Tolerance - It's the American Way"